This month, Cengage Group CEO Michael Hansen marks ten years leading the global edtech company. When Michael first joined in September 2012, Cengage was on the precipice of bankruptcy. Since then, Michael has led the charge to transform the company from a traditional print publisher into a global education technology leader. With deep belief in the power and joy learning, Cengage Group is focused on making education more accessible and affordable by offering multiple paths for learners to achieve their educational goals. To celebrate this milestone, we spoke with Michael about his journey to becoming CEO, lessons he’s learned along the way and his stand-out moments from his time so far at Cengage Group.
Did you always want to be a CEO? Describe your career journey.
The truth of the matter for me is, most of my career journey has been serendipitous. I never set out to be a CEO. In fact, when I first graduated college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I procrastinated and went to law school but knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer. For years, I was drawn to business and eventually landed in consulting. It was there that I gravitated towards two areas of focus that I feel ultimately led me to be a CEO:
- What I was really drawn to wasn’t necessarily a specific industry, but the challenge of company transformation. When I first joined Cengage 10 years ago, the company was facing an education industry that was rapidly evolving from a historically print industry to one increasingly facing the demands from students for digitally accessible and affordable education materials.
- I get a lot of my energy and drive from collaboration with others. Even as a CEO, I’ve found the greatest success isn’t always in leading from the front, but often managing from the middle and enabling others to drive initiatives and programs. Listening is critical to success.
What do you see as the most important skills or qualities to be an impactful CEO?
When I think about the critical skills I’ve gained in my career, and what I feel can make or break a leader, a few pieces of advice stand out:
- Keep it simple; you must be able to craft a very strong, clear message.
- Assess each situation with fresh eyes (and thinking); you must resist the temptation to do something over and over because it worked in one context.
- Harness the energy of those around you – employees, your leadership team, and so on; there must be a focus on ensuring the people around you feel energized and empowered.
- Stay humble; there is always somebody that is smarter, more creative, funnier and a better storyteller.
As I think about my own journey, building an understanding of our organization, and growing in clarity and effectiveness in these three areas, have been the driving forces behind my own growth and development, and led us as an organization to evolve, grow and outperform the industry.
What moments stand out to you in your 10 years at Cengage Group?
As I’ve spent time reflecting on the last 10 years, there are several moments – accomplishments, challenges and learnings – that truly stick out for me:
- My First Engagement Summit (our annual U.S. Higher Ed sales conference) – During these summits I have breakfast on the first day with eight to 10 sales representatives. These are the individuals who are on the front lines with our customers every day. The first time I hosted this breakfast, I was sitting next to an employee who had been with Cengage Group for a decently long tenure, and what she said stuck with me. She said, “I don’t have any reason to trust you. You are just here to take the company through bankruptcy.” It was reaffirming that it takes time, and demonstrated action, to earn trust.
- The Creation of Our Credo – Many thought the creation of our Credo occurred at a time that was counterintuitive. The organization was going through bankruptcy; morale and engagement were low. Many were asking, 'why now?' But that was exactly why it was the right time. We brought together employees from across the organization to participate in reflection sessions – why Cengage? Why education? Why now? Through the thousands of answers collected during these sessions, a sense of trust and belief was cultivated. The Credo that we established during that process 10 years ago continues to underpin our culture, our purpose and our performance today.
- Accepting Mistakes Will Be Made and Learning How to Pivot Quickly – While not a single distinct moment, one of the greatest takeaways for me during my time as CEO is that making mistakes is okay, and it will happen, but what is more important is to move quickly and confidently to course correct.
- The Introduction of Cengage Unlimited – In 2018, we launched Cengage Unlimited, a disruptive subscription model that tackled the affordability crisis by making quality content more affordable and accessible for higher ed learners. And now, four years later, more than 4.4 million students have saved $490M on course materials with Cengage Unlimited. The introduction of Cengage Unlimited stands out as one of the most profound moments of my career, both in watching the pride and hard work of our employees to make it happen, and in seeing the impact it has had for millions of learners.
- The Covid Pandemic – The pandemic had a significant impact on our business, both in terms of shifting our offerings and focus to meet the needs of our customers, but also in shaping the ways we work. It was with the start of the pandemic that I began hosting weekly Zoom broadcasts (First Fridays) with employees as a forum to share updates and provide employees a way to ask questions live. What started as a reaction to the need for increased communication at the start of the pandemic, has now turned into a mainstay opportunity for employees to hear from me and other company leaders on a routine basis on a range of topics.
- The Creation of a Powerful Portfolio of Education Businesses – We now have leading positions in many attractive education markets serving students from middle school through graduate school and skills education, with quality content and technology. Most recently, the launch of our Cengage Work business reflects an inflection point in our education system, and the increasing call from students for choice. In our existing higher education business, there are so many things that stand between us and student outcomes – we don’t have control. Coupling this recognition with the growing demand for new education pathways from students led to the creation of Cengage Work, a business opportunity that is very consistent with our credo and strategy, showcasing a natural evolution of the business rather than chasing a shiny new segment.
What has kept you here for 10 years and what motivates you for the next 10 years?
When it comes to motivations, I’d break it into two key buckets:
I’m motivated by our strong and vibrant culture at Cengage Group. We’ve worked hard to foster a culture rooted in transparency, candor and the belief in doing more together. We are driven by a shared mission to have a positive impact on the lives of learners across the globe each day. This passion and drive are things I share with the more than 4,500 people who work at Cengage Group, and it’s a huge reason I’ve stayed with the organization.
Secondly, I’m motivated by the transformation we have witnessed and continue to witness in education, and the opportunity it brings. The last decade has seen dramatic shifts in how students learn, and the paths they can pursue to gain employable skills. During my tenure, I’ve been focused on shaping our strategy to put student needs squarely at the center of everything we do. The opportunity to support students throughout their education journey and enable greater student choice is a huge motivator as I look ahead.
Where would you like to see Cengage Group in 10 years?
I’d like to see Cengage Group remain a leading force at the forefront of education, continuing to evolve to meet the needs of learners. The unique strength we have at Cengage Group is two-fold:
- We have a 100-year history of providing quality content that helps learners succeed. We aren’t a fresh, new startup; we are an established player. However, we don’t let our legacy define our go-forward path. We are focused on evolving to meet the changing needs of students regardless of the education path that is right for them.
- Our diverse range of education businesses support students from middle school through graduate school and skills education, with quality content and technology that help them achieve their goals and improve their lives.
The more learners we can reach and the more we can help people by giving them an education that allows them to get the job they want, the bigger and more meaningful our impact will be. So, if in 10 years we can say, ‘we are serving millions of learners every year with a path from education to employment,’ I think we are all going to be extraordinarily proud of, and extraordinarily happy with, not only our mission, but also the performance of our business.
Additionally, knowing the vital role that our culture plays in fueling our success, I would like to see Cengage Group consistently ranked amongst the most desirable places to work.
To find out more about Michael’s thoughts on education, company culture, workforce skills and business leadership, follow him on LinkedIn.